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Scandals, Smokescreens and a Golden Age?: Canadian Animation in the 21st Century

Recently Canada has been at the center of controversy and mixed reports of success, scandals and damage control. Chris Robinson offers us an updated look at the animation scene.

Helen: Hey Pop, do you know where you are right now? Pop: Uh-uh. Helen: Tell me where you are. P: Any...anywhere. H: Anywhere? P: Uh huh.

-- From Helen Hill's film Mouseholes (1999)

Caroline Leaf's use of light and color in her paintings is fuel for the imagination. © Caroline Leaf.

This union of letters, words, sentences and pages is a sequel to an article I wrote a couple of years ago entitled, "Whose Golden Age? The State of Canadian Animation." I had first encountered this dreadful phrase in an editorial of the animation issue of the Canadian magazine, Take One, and subsequently read about it in a variety of newspapers. I was surprised because from my wide exposure to Canadian animation, I saw state cuts to all branches of cultural funding including festivals, filmmakers and studios like the National Film Board of Canada. At the same time, the quality of Canadian films was in serious decline; hindered by low budgets, naivete, political correctness and an overall lack of fresh, innovative ideas. At the close of the 20th century, Canadian animation, despite what traditionalists like Hiroshima and Annecy would have you believe, seemed far removed from the innovative years of Norman McLaren, Rene Jodoin, Ryan Larkin and Caroline Leaf and unlikely to rise again. So with this in mind, where was this Golden Age anyway? Well apparently it was in the slick corporate kiosks of Nelvana, Cinar, Funbag, Walt Disney Canada, Sheridan College, Vancouver Film School and anywhere else where animation is viewed merely as a means to exploit the nostalgic sentimentalities of a generation fed on Sesame Street, MTV, and other immortal, cute, big-eyed animals who sing the songs of the muses without ever taking a shit.

Two years have passed and a great deal has changed.

Attempting to define Canada, let alone Canadian animation, is like trying to explain hockey to an American: frustrating and complicated with a tendency to simplify ("You try to get the black round thing in the net"). Just what the hell is Canadian anyway? If we are to accept Canadian sociologist Ian Angus' definition of social identity as "the feeling of belonging to a group, and of having this feeling in common with other members of that group," or Max Weber's concept of the nation as a human group that feels itself a unity to an external organization, then Canadian animation certainly doesn't subscribe smoothly to the concept of national identity. Like the country itself, Canada's animation communities are spread out far and wide across the Canadian landscape. Canadian animation is best defined as a patchwork of differing voices struggling to be heard through the shouts from the south.

Citizen Harold (1971) by animator Hugh Fouldes. © National Film Board of Canada.

Yesterday and Today

Prior to the mid-1980s defining Canadian animation was fairly straightforward. The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) was the calling card of Canadian animation, merging propaganda with artistic innovation to create some of the world's finest animation. In those days, there was little activity beyond the NFB. As early as the 1940s there were commercial houses like Graphic Visuals owned by former NFB animators, Jim McKay and George Dunning.

In the 1960s and 1970s a variety of service studios existed in Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto to provide work for the graduates of Canada's new animation school, Sheridan College which opened in 1967. In the late 1970s, Toronto's Nelvana Studios and Montreal's Cinar were small, but fledgling companies. In Vancouver, Al Sens was quietly producing anti-industrial films while Marv Newland was just opening up his studio, International Rocketship. Beyond that there were few opportunities for animators. While opportunities for government funding were more plentiful in those days unless you were one of the privileged few able to find work with the NFB, there was little opportunity for animators in Canada.

This has all changed in the last 10-15 years. Animation has emerged from the margins of cultural expression into an accepted form of cultural and economic capital that has found a popular audience. In particular 'classical' American cel animation (Disney, Warner) has established itself as the norm in mainstream culture. As such, Canadian animation has shifted from the production of government funded personal or propaganda films to a market driven industry that exists primarily to feed the global entertainment machine.


Adam Shaheen, one of the founders of Cuppa Coffee. © Cuppa Coffee.

Attempting to define Canada, let alone Canadian animation, is like trying to explain hockey to an American like Nelvana and Cinar who have established themselves as leaders in the mass production of children's television productions. While there are a variety of innovative commercial studios (Cuppa Coffee Animation, Head Gear, Mainframe Entertainment), software companies (Alias|Wavefront, Softimage, Side Effects) and special effects companies (C.O.R.E Digital), the animation landscape is dominated by a plentitude of service studios like Ottawa's Funbag Animation and Dynomight Cartoons and Vancouver's Bardel Animation, Natterjack and Studio B to name a few. With the expansion of the market for animation, many service studios have turned toward original productions. Unfortunately with few exceptions (eg. Angela Anaconda, Rolie Polie Olie, Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy) these productions merely attempt to emulate the American norm.

On the heels of the success of Oakville's Sheridan College, the premiere classical training school in the world, various animation schools have sprung up all across the country. Vancouver Film School, Seneca College, VanArts, Capilano College, College-Interdec and Algonquin College have found success with their animation or visual arts programmes and have become major recruiting sources for the likes of Nelvana and Cinar and most of the American majors.

The emergence of animation into the global marketplace has not been as kind to the art community, but there remains a strong core of independent animation production. Educational institutions like Emily Carr School of Design (Vancouver) and Concordia University (Montreal) encourage students to produce more personal orientated work. Outside the traditional realm of education, non-profit associations like Calgary's Quickdraw Animation Society (QAS) and Halifax's Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative (AFC) provide affordable opportunities to those who cannot or do not want to attend costly post-secondary institutions. At the same time, QAS and AFC have produced a strong body of work that is increasingly being acknowledged by festivals around the world. Beyond institutions, a scattered array of artists like Marv Newland, Richard Reeves, Helen Hill, Stephen Arthur, Gail Noonan, and even 79 year-old NFB pioneer René Jodoin, continue to struggle along producing their own personal visions for a modest viewing audience.

The Issues

While the Canada Council has re-emerged as a strong supporter of Canadian artists, the government on the whole has shown more interest in backing industrial projects. In 1997, the Ontario government gave Sheridan College a $12 million grant to open a New Technology Centre. This move was made to benefit the Ontario industry, but arguably most of the students will travel to the U.S. to find more lucrative work.

More disturbing still is the government's tax subsidy for the creation of Walt Disney's studios in Toronto and Vancouver (both studios recently closed). A tax credit system was introduced by the Ontario provincial government, but it encourages only the production of computer animation or special effects.

The major problem for Canadian animators remains that of distribution. Despite the emergence of an animation channel (Teletoon) and new opportunities in home video and the Internet, the festival circuit remains the leading source for viewing non-mainstream animation. Since 1976, Canada has been home to North America's largest animation festival, the Ottawa International Animation Festival which, despite heavy government cuts, has managed to remain a primary supporter of independent animation while carving out a place for the industry. In recent years, festivals have started in Vancouver, Halifax and another in Ottawa devoted to student and emerging animators.

Until recently two favourite topics of the Canadian media were the low Canadian dollar and the so-called 'Brain Drain' which has seen Canadian professionals from hockey players (Wayne Gretzky) and actors (Jim Carrey) to writers and doctors lured by increased opportunities and a higher dollar to the U.S. Animation in particular has been affected. Virtually every American studio houses Canadians. Some of the more prominent emigres include John Kricfalusi (Ren and Stimpy) and Steve Williams (the digital guru behind Jurassic Park). Aggravating the situation is the low Canadian dollar. When Walt Disney announced they were opening studios in Vancouver and Toronto in 1995, they said it was because of the legendary reputation of Canadian animators. While there is some truth in that statement, the reality is that in addition to tax subsidies, Disney was setting up shop to take advantage of the Canadian dollar. In essence, Canada was serving as a Korean-like 'sweatshop.' The Canadian dollar is a precarious situation because if the dollar rises to par with the U.S., we will likely see that despite our reputation for producing quality animators, most Canadian studios will be out of work. At the same time, as long as the dollar is low Canadian studios will continue to primarily offer service work to American companies, but at least there is the opportunity to produce original productions.

Big Scandals

The past year in Canadian animation has been fraught with turmoil. First, Walt Disney announced that they were closing their studios in Vancouver and Toronto. Some 400 plus people were layed off. The official word came in March 2000, but insiders had known since late summer 1999. Publicly, Disney said that they no longer felt pressure to meet production deadlines. In the end, no one cared. Nelvana and other studios picked up the jobless and Disney walked away with minimal damage thanks to a tax break that eased any possible financial pains. Everyone won except the Canadian taxpayer.

Franklin. © Nelvana.

On May 29, 2000, Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, published a biting portrait of Vancouver's animation industry. As if scripted from Dickens, an anonymous animator told of the long hours, mundane work and the fear of losing one's job. "Work is so desperate that people will do anything to stay on. People are working themselves to death." In typical Canadian fashion there wasn't a whole lot of reaction to this article (the hockey playoffs were on), but one animator did say: "It's possible that the industry's in a slump at the moment, but why make it look so awful and smell so bad?" Another responded that this was the first time the media had portrayed the industry in a negative light and that it was about time truths be told. And despite threatening this person with a banana tree while sipping some god awful herbal tea in Hollywood, I agree with him. For too long, we have heard about the wonders of the animation industry. It has become akin to the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1800s when desperate men from across the continent traveled to the far reaches of cold Northern Canada in the hopes of finding gold. Some did, most didn't. In animation, the rush is very much over, but schools continue to churn out 'factory workers;' where they go nobody knows. One thing is for certain, they are not going to animation studios. Animation schools continue to boast about their high job placement rates, but these kids are working briefly on a project before donning the blue fat guy bib and greeting prospective consumers at the doors of Wal Mart. The animation industry, at least in Canada, has become a disillusioned illusion of prosperity, diversity and opportunity.

But wait, things get worse. The biggest scandal since Canada held off the U.S. attacks of 1812 occurred when it was learned that Cinar Animation was not only fudging their credits to gain federal tax credits, but that some $122 million was invested in a Bahamas investment fund without the board's knowledge. The controversies resulted in Cinar stock dropping some 70% in one day, the removal of Cinar from the stock market, and the resignation of the company's blissfully married founders Micheline Charest and Ronald Weinberg.

The first scandal appeared last fall when a Canadian politician accused Cinar of falsely crediting Canadians for the work of Americans in order to receive government subsidies. We're not talking chicken feed either: over a five-year period in the mid-1990s, Cinar received over $50 million in tax benefits. It was eventually determined that Charest's sister, Helene, was listed on over 100 episodes she didn't write. Given that there are many loud whispers that this is common practice one would think that a less obvious name could have been invented. At times, the absolute idiocy and arrogance of power and wealth is truly astonishing. Since this time, the federal funding organization, Telefilm Canada has stopped all transactions with Cinar (strangely one of the Cinar board members is from Telefilm Canada!) and Cinar is still dealing with the federal tax department to negotiate a repayment of misused funds.

The second scandal arose less than six months later when it was determined that there was improper use of company funds. Initially the stories reported that Senior Executive Vice-President, Hasanain Panju had made offshore dealings without board knowledge, but the scapegoat tune soon changed when it was discovered that Weinberg had actually signed some of the transfers. This internal scandal has evolved into an intricate web of lawsuits and accusations that has seen Cinar banned from the Toronto Stock Exchange. Needless to say, private investors are thinking long and hard before investing in the animation industry. As one observer tells it: "What if the production I invest in doesn't even get their funding because they don't qualify for government subsidies? My investment will have crashed without ever having left the ground."

Martin Rose's Trawna Tuh Belvul. © National Film Board of Canada.

For our purposes, the alleged misuse of tax credits is the bigger story. The Cinar scandal erupted during another government department screw-up and opposition politicians began accusing the government of lazy tax policies. Fueling matters was not only the presence of a Telefilm Canada executive on Cinar's board but also Cinar's close relationship with the governing Liberals. The scandal re-opened the whole issue of cultural funding and tax incentives to business and brought the loud, ugly voices of the right wing to the forefront again calling for a dismantling of tax subsidies to the Canadian film and television industry. As one insider points out: "With all the cuts to other public sectors -- health, education, welfare, etc. -- there is a public outcry over funding large wealthy companies. The film funding institutions are having an even harder time justifying funding film production, when there are so many more popular worthy causes demanding attention."

Right wingers were not alone in their complaints; in the U.S., members of the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Union went out in full force this spring to complain about jobs being lost to Canadian companies because of generous tax subsidies. It's always interesting to hear complaints from people within a culture that has generally numbed and overtaken most of the world with its crass disposable culture which has thrived off cheap labour and exploitation. So a few American animators are out of work; welcome to the world the rest of us have been living in for decades.

Montreal in particular has been hit hard by the scandal. Cinar has laid off many employees and studio morale is at an all time low. With the exception of CineGroupe, Montreal studios are not hiring. Montreal is now losing a lot of talent to competitors like Nelvana and Funbag.

Big Time Business

Despite these minor annoyances, this is probably one of the most successful periods in Canadian animation history. Cinar is expected to rise from this crisis stronger then before and it seems unlikely that the rest of the industry will suffer too much because of the actions of one company. The industrial reality remains that Nelvana, and Cinar continue to lead the pack and produce a barrage of successful international children's entertainment, while Ottawa's Funbag Animation Studios, which recently expanded their operations to Halifax, is growing by the day and will likely rival Nelvana and Cinar in the near future.

Canada remains a pioneer and leader in computer animation. Softimage, Side Effects, C.O.R.E. Digital, Alias|Wavefront, and most recently, Nelvana have all established themselves as prominent players in the digital animation and special effects industry. In Montreal, a flurry of f/x companies have started including Hybride Technologies, Tube Images, Big Bang F/X Animation, Buzz Image Group and Voodoo Arts. While most of the work is service orientated, Toronto's Alias|Wavefront, thanks in part to Chris Landreth, has turned their tools toward the production of a pair of test shorts, The End (1996) and Bingo (1998), which became award winning films. Landreth's work combines stylish computer graphics with an intelligent, absurdist point-of-view to create two masterpieces of self-referential cinema. Landreth is one of the few computer animators to take the medium beyond technical experiments and into challenging, thoughtful critiques of human existence. In April 2000, Landreth moved on to Nelvana where he now heads up a new computer animation division.

There are also a number of companies expanding their animated possibilities with a low-end multi-media approach. The pioneer of this new trend is undoubtedly Toronto's Cuppa Coffee Animation. Founded in 1992 by Adam Shaheen and Bruce Alcock, Cuppa Coffee has set the industry standard by selling bold, experimental graphics to advertisers and broadcasters. In just eight years, Cuppa Coffee has produced some landmark work for Canada's MTV, Coca-Cola, Mazda, the Ottawa '98 Festival Trailer film, and two particularly creative children's shows Crashbox and Clever Trevor. Another Toronto-based company, Head Gear was formed in 1997 by former Cuppa Coffee directors, Julian Grey and Steve Angel. Head Gear specializes in the production of mixed media techniques and has already produced a handful of inspired spots for The Sundance Channel, Nestle, and three very funny condom ads. C.O.R.E Digital, primarily a computer effects service house, recently ventured into proprietary production by co-producing the series Angela Anaconda. The show is a striking stylistic departure for television animation. Using a two-dimensional collage style with scanned photos, Angela Anaconda is the portrait of Angela and her not so perfect life with family, friends, teachers and arch enemy, Natette Manoir.

Transfigured. © National Film Board of Canada.

While we constantly hear talk that the computer age is bringing with it the freedom for anyone to create their own works of art, we rarely see these expressions of freedom and when we do they aren't particularly good. However in 1999, far from the swank, trendy office suites of Toronto animators, 79 year-old René Jodoin, who retired from the NFB in 1984, sat in his Beaconsfield, Quebec basement and made Between Time and Place. This short experimental film expandson Jodoin's life long fascination with all things geometrical andexplores the nature of time and space between musical notes. Remarkably, Between Time and Place was made using an old Amiga programwithout any corporate or government funding.

Gettin' Learned...

On the educational front, there has been much debate about the direction of educational institutions. Some criticize training schools like Sheridan College, Algonquin College and Vancouver Film Schoolamong others for simply mass producing parts for the Disney empire. At the same time, the most cutting edge schools like Emily Carr and Concordia are producing work that is interesting, but not risk taking by any stretch of the imagination. Some of the most promising Emily Carr graduates include Ryan Schweitzer (Dog, 2bit Facial), Paula McBride (The People Collector, Something Extraordinary), Sonia Bridge (The Day Stashi Ran Out of Honey) and Jakub Pistecky whose film Little Milosh recently won the Best Canadian Student Film at the 1999 Ottawa International Student Animation Festival. Ironically, Milosh is a beautifully designed and well-told story, but is decidedly mainstream in the gothic tradition of Tim Burton and Vincent Price. Concordia has produced a number of independent orientated films over the years, but these films are rarely shown because of the school's inability or apathy when it comes to self-promotion. Most recently, Anouck Prefontaine generated enthusiasm for her NFB inspired film, Oh Lord. Outside of Emily Carr, Canadian student animation is not particularly inspiring. Many new schools have started animation departments simply to cash in on the success of Sheridan and Vancouver Film School. Like a pack of starving lap dogs lunging at leftover entrails, schools are mass producing students to learn a single way of animation so they can find immediate jobs in the midst of the animation explosion. But if the industry ever collapses, thesestudents will be without work and the proper training to evolve on their own. The government must assume the brunt of the blame. Their systematic dismantling of funding for education has forced schools to find new avenues of funding and more often than not this involvescorporate sponsorship and with that an industrial make over of the institution's aims. As long as the students are finding jobs and are content to accept a variety of unimaginative positions it is doubtful that the quality of animation education will improve in the years to come.

Alexander Petrov, painting one of the approximately 29,000 images to create his 22-minute animated adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. © Pascal Blais Productions, Inc.; Imagica Corp.

The Independent Plight

Another area of concern, as it is perpetually throughout the world, is the state of independent animation. With government funding in decline, the NFB absorbing two decades of cuts, and the industry booming, it has become increasingly difficult for independent animators to get their films made, let alone seen outside of a festival. Oddly enough, Canadian independent animation has arguably never been stronger. Thanks to committed associations like Quickdraw Animation Society (QAS) and Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative (AFC) among others, a modest but consistent body of independent work is being produced outside of the traditional confines of the NFB. Cooperatives throughout Canada have been a key developer of Canadian film talent. By providing equipment and training for reasonable rates, many aspiring artists are turning toward cooperatives as an alternative to the increasing costs of post-secondary education. Additionally while film schools tend to provide industrial training, co-ops afford an environment conducive to independent artists. QAS was founded in 1984 and is a non-profit, artist run centre that is committed to any type of animation. The co-op has nurtured the likes of animators Richard Reeves (Linear Dreams), Wayne Traudt (Movements of the Body), Carol Beecher (Ask Me), Kevin Kurytnik (Abandon Bob Hope, All Ye Who Enter) and Don Best (Raw), and has emerged as a leading producer of 'alternative' animation in Canada. In addition, QAS offers animation classes and scholarships to any and all aspiring animators. While Halifax's AFC is not animation specific, a small group of animators has emerged from Canada's Mecca of the East most notably Helen Hill, a former California Institute of the Arts student who now teaches courses at the AFC and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Hill has fashioned a deceptively primitive body of work that is best described as quirky and unpretentious portraits of highly personal journeys into lands foreign and exotic, yet strangely familiar. Hill's most recent film, Mouseholes is a moving, comic-poetic tribute to her grandfather that merges cut-out and live-action with actual interviews between Helen and her grandfather along with snippets of dialogue from the funeral.

Beyond cooperatives, a number of independent animators have furnished independent careers primarily on their own with minimal government support. Gail Noonan has been making films in British Columbia since 1989, but has found festival success with recent films Your Name In Cellulite and The Menopause Song. While Menopause lightly celebrates the joys of menstruation, Your Name is a damning comment of the mass media's perception of women's beauty. Noonan's latest film, Lost and Found, is a tale about two children who encounter 'homeless' people. Stephen Arthur has a very diverse background that includes feature film scriptwriting and neurobiology. He has been making experimental films since 1969. In recent years he has turned more toward surrealistic exploratory works. Transfigured (1998) brought movement and interaction to Canadian painter Jack Shadbolt's work, while his latest film, Vision Point (1999) is a journey through Western Canada as if on a liberated roller coaster.

Since the NFB left in the 1960s, the Ottawa animation scene, with the exception of a few service studios and the Ottawa festival, has been relatively quiet. However, an independent scene is slowly emerging. In 1999, the Ottawa festival joined with the Ottawa Independent Filmmakers Co-operative (IFCO) to purchase an animation stand. IFCO animator Brian McPhail has produced two poorly animated, but deliriously demented films called Stiffy (which toured with Spike and Mike and is now being turned into a TV series) and most recently, Down a Dark Chimney. Calvin Climie is currently at work on a stop-motion film, and Dan Sokolowski, a noted experimental filmmaker in Ottawa, continues to merge elements of animation and live-action into his picturesque landscape films. In late 2000, former NFB animator, Ryan Larkin (director of the Oscar nominated Walking and a protégé of Norman McLaren) will work on his first animated film in over twenty years.

The Old Man and the Sea.© Pascal Blais Productions, Inc.; Imagica Corp.

Dynomight Cartoons employees Tavis Silbernagel and Nick Cross have started their own studios, Joy Lab Pictures and Do It For Me Productions, respectively. Their goal is to self-finance a film per month until they have a viable show reel. The animators have had early success with their delightfully shocking odes to Terry Toons, Fruit, Juice! Protein? and Der Unterseefraulein.

South of Ottawa, in a town called Toronto, the animation scene remains primarily industry dominated, but thanks to the efforts of Patrick Jenkins, among others, there seems to be a revival in animation production through the re-formation of the Toronto Animated Image Society. Most recently, veteran animator Arnie Lipsey had his film Almonds and Wine screened at the World Animation Celebration.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between commercial and independent animators a few companies have turned toward the production of independent short films. Montreal's Pascal Blais Productions, a commercial studio, which has worked with the likes of Caroline Leaf and Cordell Barker (The Cat Came Back), co-produced the short film, The Old Lady and The Pigeons by Sylvain Chomet. The film was met with resounding success at festivals around the world and brought a new respect for the Blais studios. Most recently, Blais partnered up with Russian animator Alexander Petrov to create a 22-minute IMAX animation film based on Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea. Aside from a variety of awards including the Oscar, Petrov's adaptation has attracted thousands of spectators to see this 'independent' animation film. In Ottawa, Dynomight Cartoons recently co-produced a humourous homage to Ingmar Bergman called Tea for Two by newcomer Nick Cross. Whether studio sponsored short films proves to be an adequate venue for independent animators remains to be seen, but it does provide an interesting option.

"Where is here?" Canadian literary critic, Northrop Frye once noted is a question that pervades Canadian culture. It can also to be applied to Canadian animation, but unlike other facets of Canadian culture (literature, music, painting), and very much like hockey, there was once a sense of where here was: before 1972 and the historic series with the Russians, hockey was a Canadian game. Before the 1980s, Canadian animation was the National Film Board of Canada. Just as hockey is now flourishing as an international and increasingly Americanized business, so too is animation. Where there was once certainty, there were also limitations. Where there is now uncertainty and fragmentation, there are also possibilities. Like hockey which "is re-invented at the drop of every puck," Canadian animation is re-born with every drawing, print out, scan, cut out, scratch, or with whatever tools are out there. Canada, perhaps the first post-modern country, is a constantly shifting space where here is also out there, anywhere.

Research Assistant: Heidi Blohme.

Thanks to the following: Leslie Bishko, Eric Roy, Carol Beecher, Rene Jodoin, Gail Noonan, Helen Hill, James McSwain and Tom McSorley for letting me poach his hockey analogy.

Chris Robinson is executive director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and the founder and director of SAFO, the International Student Animation Festival of Ottawa. In his spare time, Robinson is vice president of ASIFA-Canada. Robinson has curated film programs (AnimExpo, Images Festival and Olympia Film Festival), served on juries (AnimExpo, World Animation Celebration), and written articles on animation for Animation World Magazine, FPS and Take One.